A Document I’ve Obsessed About for Some 7 Years Or So; It Speaks What I’ve Thought, Felt, and Experienced, Exactly, Even the Six Years Thing, Except I Have No Small Fortune or Amazing Symphonies

May 19, 2012

*trigger warning, though it does have a hopeful message akin to ‘art is my salvation’*

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The Heiligenstadt Testament or What Mouse Likes to Call Beethoven’s Suicidal-ish Letter to His Brother(s)

(English translation)

For my brothers Carl and [Johann] Beethoven

Oh you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn, or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me. You do not know the secret cause which makes me seem that way to you. From childhood on, me heart and soul have been full of the tender feeling of goodwill, and I was ever inclined to accomplish great things. But, think that for six years now I have been hopelessly afflicted, made worse by senseless physicians, from year to year deceived with hopes of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take years or, perhaps, be impossible). Though born with a fiery, active temperament, even susceptible to the diversions of society, I was soon compelled to withdraw myself, to live life alone. If at times I tried to forget all this, oh how harshly I was I flung back by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing. Yet it was impossible for me to say to people, “Speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.” Ah, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection such as few in my profession enjoy or ever have enjoyed.–Oh I cannot do it; therefore forgive me when you see me draw back when I would have gladly mingled with you.

My misfortune is doubly painful to me because I am bound to be misunderstood; for me there can be no relaxation with my fellow men, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas. I must live almost alone, like one who has been banished; I can mix with society only as much as true necessity demands. If I approach near to people a hot terror seizes upon me, and I fear being exposed to the danger that my condition might be noticed. Thus it has been during the last six months which I have spent in the country. By ordering me to spare my hearing as much as possible, my intelligent doctor almost fell in with my own present frame of mind, though sometimes I ran counter to it by yielding to my desire for companionship.

But what a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended me life — it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me. So I endured this wretched existence — truly wretched for so susceptible a body, which can be thrown by a sudden change from the best condition to the very worst. — Patience, they say, is what I must now choose for my guide, and I have done so — I hope my determination will remain firm to endure until it pleases the inexorable Parcae to break the thread. Perhaps I shall get better, perhaps not; I am ready. — Forced to become a philosopher already in my twenty-eighth year, oh it is not easy, and for the artist much more difficult than for anyone else. ‘Divine one, thou seest me inmost soul thou knowest that therein dwells the love of mankind and the desire to do good’. Oh fellow men, when at some point you read this, consider then that you have done me an injustice; someone who has had misfortune may console himself to find a similar case to his, who despite all the limitations of Nature nevertheless did everything within his powers to become accepted among worthy artists and men.

You, my brothers Carl and [Johann], as soon as I am dead, if Dr. Schmidt is still alive, ask him in my name to describe my malady, and attach this written documentation to his account of my illness so that so far as it possible at least the world may become reconciled to me after my death”.

At the same time, I declare you two to be the heirs to my small fortune (if so it can be called); divide it fairly; bear with and help each other. What injury you have done me you know was long ago forgiven. To you, brother Carl, I give special thanks for the attachment you have shown me of late. It is my wish that you may have a better and freer life than I have had. Recommend virtue to your children; it alone, not money, can make them happy. I speak from experience; this was what upheld me in time of misery. Thanks to it and to my art, I did not end my life by suicide — Farewell and love each other —

I thank all my friends, particularly Prince Lichnowsky’s and Professor Schmidt — I would like the instruments from Prince L. to be preserved by one of you, but not to be the cause of strife between you, and as soon as they can serve you a better purpose, then sell them. How happy I shall be if can still be helpful to you in my grave — so be it. — With joy I hasten to meed death. — If it comes before I have had the chance to develop all my artistic capacities, it will still be coming too soon despite my harsh fate, and I should probably wish it later — yet even so I should be happy, for would it not free me from a state of endless suffering? — Come when thou wilt, I shall meet thee bravely. — Farewell and do not wholly forget me when I am dead; I deserve this from you, for during my lifetime I was thinking of you often and of ways to make you happy — please be so —

Ludwig van Beethoven

Heiligenstadt,

October 6th, 1802

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Though he never completely was able to rid himself of his depression, Beethoven went on to write Symphony No. 9, his most famous work to date, after writing this letter/will, much after he was pretty much completely (no my favorite but a damn good one). Life has more irony than fiction.

Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI) often causes hearing loss. Whenever people find out that I have pretty severe hearing loss (in my right ear mostly) and know that I’m also a musician, they almost always mention Beethoven.

“Oh, that must suck, but you know Beethoven…”

I often feel ambivalent towards their attempt to comfort me. I don’t like to mention my hearing loss because I don’t want people feeling sorry for me, but I often have to so people can know not to whisper around me. Imagine how difficult it is to have severe social anxiety with normal hearing, and then having a loss like that just multiplies the anxiety. If Beethoven lived in our modern day, he’d be labeled with “social anxiety disorder” and “major depressive disorder” for sure–among other things.

Whenever people start to give me their puckered face and their, “Beethoven did…” speech, I always want to show them this letter he wrote, as if to say, “SEE, it wasn’t easy! Beethoven wanted to kill himself for many years. So please, don’t give me that fuckin’ shit! In fact, some say he may have drank himself to death! But yes, you’re right, he did keep on writing his music. And thank you for your kind words, you make a good point about determination. Whew. Sorry, didn’t mean to go off on ya…”

The good thing is I’m learning to habituate. Again, art has been my salvation. And this letter has been a source of comfort.

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May is Mental Health Awareness Month.

Resource:
http://www.all-about-beethoven.com/heiligenstadt_test.html

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7 Responses to “A Document I’ve Obsessed About for Some 7 Years Or So; It Speaks What I’ve Thought, Felt, and Experienced, Exactly, Even the Six Years Thing, Except I Have No Small Fortune or Amazing Symphonies”

  1. That’s such a moving letter. It’s crappy not to be perfect and the less perfect, ie afflicted, you are, the crappier it is. That’s the reality – although some people manage to be happy anyway.

    • PAZ said

      It is VERY moving. And shows the power of resilience. I think he had an “artist’s temperament” to begin with, the hearing loss just made it worse. What I mean by that is, he was already inclined to being fierce and sensitive and moody and depressive–as with me I believe. And I say this without being haughty about it. I can just relate to much of what he says here, hence my obsession with the letter.

      Also, I started to loose my hearing when I was about 18 years old and I was already bitterly depressed just before my teens, so I know it’s more than just one thing.

      People do manage to be happy. 🙂

    • PAZ said

      And what is happiness really? I think I’ll go with less baseline words, maybe contentment or joy. 😉

  2. Amanda said

    Thank you so much for sharing this!

  3. I had a conversation with my Mum this morning about messed up people being more artistic (she’s studies art history amongst other things). I guess it’s true. I think it’s something to do with imagination and being broken and in pain so you find other ways to cope.
    xoxoxox

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